Physics 201F
Concepts of Physics

(last updated 5 Dec 2012)

Aephraim M. Steinberg
(rm 1103, tel 978-0713, my last name at

Office hours: W2 in MP1103, or by appointment

Teaching Assistants:

Ray Goerke (email: rgoerke at physics.....)
Dan Fine (email: dfine at physics.....)

Times and Venues
Lectures: Tu & Th 17-18 in MP137
Discussion sections: Tu & Th 18-19

There are two lecture hours per week plus one hour of discussion.
You are registered in either the Tuesday or the Thursday time slot for the discussion section.
Depending on your last name, you should go to one of the following rooms at your scheduled time:
A-Lee:MP125A(TA Dan Fine)
Lin-Z:MP125B(TA Ray Goerke)

FIRST TUTORIAL Tuesday 11 September 2012 --

Overview | Grading | Syllabus | Reading assignments | Source Materials | Posted Lectures| Writing | Homework Assignments |


This course is intended for students who wish to learn about some of the remarkable discoveries of modern physics, the insights and surprises they offer into the nature of reality, determinism, space, and time, and the mysteries they have so far left unanswered. It assumes no scientific background and no mathematics, but it is expected that students will come to the class motivated to explore complicated concepts and discuss them critically. Evaluation will be based on a mix of exams and writing assignments.

In addition to the required textbook, you will be expected to do outside reading (there is a long list of recommended texts), and we will make extensive use of David Harrison's online notes (see for instance Quantum Mechanics listings), as well as of web-based sources I will provide sporadically. You will be left a fair degree of liberty (and responsibility) to seek out sources (online or otherwise) which help you develop a sufficient understanding of the material to contribute to discussions in class and tutorials and to demonstrate on exams and in essays your ability to synthesize and expand upon this information.

Our principal references are listed at the bottom of this page, and I strongly encourage you to begin reading one of the popularizations in parallel with the text by Hobson.


Fraction of Grade
Homework (P/F) 10%
Short Essay (1-2 pages) 10%
Mid Term 20%
Term paper (c. 10 pages) 30%
Final Exam 30%

There will be 3 or 4 homework assignments over the course of the semester, intended as a guide to the material you should be learning and thinking about; they will be graded pass/fail, and you should see them as an opportunity to stay on top of the subject matter. The assignments are to be handed in at the tutorial sessions.

There will be a midterm and a final exam, including both short-answer and essay questions.

A large part of your grade will be based on writing.

One of my responsibilities is to protect you from any classmates who may be tempted to submit work that is not their own. Students agree that by taking this course all required papers may be subject to submission for textual similarity review to for the detection of plagiarism.  All submitted papers will be included as source documents in the reference database solely for the purpose of detecting plagiarism of such papers. The terms that apply to the University's use of the service are described on the web site.

There will be one short essay (1-2 pages) early in the term, so that you can get some practice writing analytically about a scientific topic, and get feedback in preparation for the long paper, which will be approximately 10 pages long and give you the opportuinty to research a scientific topic and present your original perspective on it, including a critical assessment of your reference materials.

To submit your essays to, you must go to their web site and register for our course.


This course is a dialogue, and the syllabus will evolve as our discussions continue. I welcome suggestions about topics you would like to learn more about. What follows is a rough outline of the topics I presently expect we will try to cover.

What is Science and What is Physics?

The scientific method, observation, and prediction
What is an explanation?
Energy: a discovery or an invention?
Popper, Kuhn, falsification, and paradigm shifts

The Riddle of Light

What is light?
• Action at a distance, fields, and waves
• Electricity and magnetism

Bohr, Einstein, and those guys: The World of the Quantum (part 1)

What is reality?
Does God play dice with the universe?
Can we know whether God plays dice with the universe?
[We will introduce some of the concepts of quantum physics early on, but return later in the semester to delve more deeply into them]

More about Einstein: Relativity and the Spacetime Continuum

Is reality absolute, or is it in the eye of the beholder?
What is time?
What is space?
What happens if you go faster than light?
If the universe is expanding, why is it still so hard to get a parking spot?

Time's Arrow

The "Second Law of Thermodynamics" and irreversibility
What distinguishes past from future?
Why is this so obvious to normal people but so confusing to physicists?

Quantum Weirdness (part 2)

Is the world really random?
Is there a limit to how much we can know about the world?
Is there "spooky action at a distance"?
Are there many parallel universes?
Does quantum mechanics have anything to do with consciousness?
Applications of quantum weirdness: quantum cryptography, quantum teleportation, quantum computers

Miscellaneous topics (to be chosen in consultation with the class, and as time permits)
Could include:
Matter and antimatter
Elementary particles and string theory
Black holes
Can you tell whether you're looking at the real world or at a reflection in a mirror?


From time to time, I will post some additional assigned reading here.
For the first week of class, I recommend that in addition to starting to choose one of the books listed under "Readings," you read the first chapter of Hobson, and glance at Tony Key's one-page summary of Newton's Physics, along with the first sections of his "Magic of Physics" write-up.

Further recommended readings as of 15 September 2012:
For our discussions of conservation of energy and momentum, you may be interested in this write-up on the Concept of Energy.

A recent editorial on BBC News argues that "Science hasn't enabled us to dispense with myths. Instead it has become a vehicle for myths - chief among them, the myth of salvation through science. Many of the people who scoff at religion are sublimely confident that, by using science, humanity can march onwards to a better world," and "There's nothing in science that says the world can be finally understood by the human mind." I suggest you read the article and think about whether you agree with such statements (and if not, how you would disprove the author's claims).

This story on "lucky socks"discusses the human ability to infer relationships of cause and effect.

I recommend at least glancing at this short description of Karl Popper's philosophy of science, and contrasting it with a similarly short summary of Thomas Kuhn's very different viewpoint.

Further recommended reading as of 19 September 2012:

In Hobson, chapters 3-5 go into much more detail than we have in class about the Galilean/Newtonian revolution, and the viewpoint of the mechanical universe, while chapter 6 discusses energy (again, from a more practical and less philosophical perspective than we are taking in class). The discussion of the discovery of the neutrino should remind you of our question about "inventing" new forms of energy in order to preserve the beloved principle of conservation of energy.

Chapter 9 introduces electricity and magnetism and waves, the topics we are now covering in class.

As I mentioned in class, you should continue with your reading of the physics popularization you have chosen as your "go-to" book for the course, and pay special attention (using it and/or the other references I have listed below and/or any sources you find on line or at the library) to making sure you are clear on the basic concepts of energy, fields, and electricity & magnetism. We will now move on to interference and the quantum "two-slit experiment," followed by a discussion of special relativity, so that you have an idea of what you should be reading.

You are encouraged to supplement these readings with David Harrison's description of vibrations (oscillations) and waves, and then of the two-slit experiment.

The Wikipedia page on double-slit experiments is also a nice start, with some links for further reading.

You may find it helpful to visit the following web pages and applets, some of which I will use in class to introduce waves:
Introduction to waves by Dan Russell,
Wave Motion in Time and Space (idem),
Superposition of Waves (idem),
Wave Dispersion, by Paul Falstad
Ripple Tank Simulation, (idem),
Sound Wave Interference, (idem).

Two links from 21.9.12 about Galileo's ship and the principle of relativity:
Wikipedia article on Galileo's ship
Movie of ball dropped from pickup truck

Further readings in Hobson as of 26 September 2012:
Sections 8.1-8.5 and 9.1-9.4 discuss waves and electromagnetism as we have been doing in class; section 9.5 and chapter 13 introduce quantum mechanics, the topic we are now moving towards; and sections 8.6-8.7 and chapter 14 introduce the important discoveries about the structure of the atom which we will talk about. (Section numbers based on third edition - some may have changed in the fifth edition, and I will provide more detail once I get it.)
Postscriptum: in the fifth edition, waves are introduced in 9.1-9.2, while 8.1-8.6 cover electromagnetism. 9.3-9.7 describe light as an electromagnetic wave, while chapter 12 introduces quantum mechanics.

Readings as of 2 Oct 12:
You should have read chapters 8 and 9 already; you should now read chapter 12.

Further reading suggestions as of 6 Oct 12:
The movie of single photons building up an interference pattern on a camera, one by one.
For those of you who are still hungry for more after our nearly 2-hour digression into dimensional analysis, or who just feel the need to read up on it before the midterm,
Quickunits.htm is a good tutorial,
dimensional-analysis.htm has better examples, but is thicker on the math jargon,
the wikipedia page may be helpful,
and this lecture from MIT has a good (if lengthy) discussion of measurements, uncertainty, and dimensional analysis.
The excellent video on powers of 10 was removed from the above lecture, but is worth watching on this youtube link.
You might be interested to compare it with Monty Python's version, or a more contemporary (and perhaps familiar) one.
A student in last year's class kindly pointed me to this geeky XKCD cartoon about dimensional analysis as well.

This Scientific American blog, "a physicist flirts with philosophy and lives to tell the tale," is an excellent discussion of the philosophy of science, quantum mechanics, Popper, Kuhn, and determinism.

This blog by Marco Piani examines Sheldon (from the "Big Bang Theory")'s claim that geology is not science, from a somewhat serious perspective. It also has an excellent cartoon about the scientific method.

These pages from an excellent cyclopedia about the philosophy of science give a good overview of Paul Feyerabend's controversial thought.

I highly recommend the New Scientist's archive of one-minute physics clips.

David Harrison's discussion of two-slit interference, particles, and waves is an excellent introduction.

I can also recommend Tony Key's more in-depth version.

In addition, these pages from David Harrison discuss Bohr's complementarity principle and the broader "Copenhagen Interpretation" of which it forms a cornerstone.

Here is an animation of the double-slit for particles and waves, and an applet which shows how an interference pattern can build up from single particles.

In preparation for moving into Special Relativity, this is an interesting review of a book by Peter Galison which I highly recommend, Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps.

The midterm will be one hour, held in class on Tuesday, 23 October 2012.

More links as of 9 October:
A discussion from the Colbert Report last year about Schrödinger's Candidate!
Among the New Scientist clips I mentioned before, this one about Schrödinger's cat is particularly relevant now.
Further information about the 2012 Nobel Prizes can be found here.

More reading as of 11 October:
You should now read chapter 10 of Hobson, on special relativity.

More reading as of 16 October:
You should finish reading chapter 10 and then begin reading chapter 11. For relativity, you should find some of the supplementary books particularly helpful as well; I'd especially recommend Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality," or the sequel to the book with the dog.

In the wake of the quantum Nobel Prizes, there's been a lot of press coverage, but I think "Cracking the Quantum Safe" from the New York Times and "Future of Computing has Schr¨o;dinger's Cat Inside" from ars technica are particularly interesting.
Finally, if studying for midterms gets you down, there's always this little gem to make you feel better...

More reading as of 8 November:
This youtube video about VIRGO, the French-Italian gravitational-wave observatory, gives a nice overview of the quest to detect gravitational waves.
David Harrison's write-up on general relativity is an excellent reference if you wish to read more about that topic.
This is a short video about time travel and some theoretical ideas about how it might be possible.
This is the full version of the Woody Allen article from the New Yorker of which I read you an excerpt.

Having finished chapters 10 and 11, you should read chapter 7 about thermodynamics.
You can get a head start on chaos and nonlinear dynamics from the wikipedia page, since our textbook omits it, and James Gleick's book is considered one of the excellent popularisations of the subject.

Next we will return to quantum mechanics, so in addition to reviewing chapter 13, you should read chapter 14.

Just to stress how controversial many of the topics we are covering remain, here is an article from last year discussing new results which some of us believe force us to question certain common interpretations of quantum mechanics.
This page is David Harrison's description of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
This is a recent article about the latest efforts towards observing gravitational waves.

This is an interesting article about controversies throughout the history of science, through the present day, and how they are resolved.

More reading as of 27 November:
We are still discussing the issues raised in chapter 14, but by the last class we will have some time to touch on the standard model (quarks et cetera), "field theory," and at least the motivation of string theory -- you should read chapter 18.
I presented an excerpt from Susan Strehle's "Fiction in the Quantum Universe" in class - some of you may be interested in this book, or in Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's "Fashionable Nonsense," which takes a rather dim view of such applications of modern physics to culture more broadly.
This recent BBC story has a very nice discussion of the importance of the discovery of the atom, and where it has led;
This one talks about the current frontier, and controversies which remain in our understanding of the particles that make up the universe.

30 Nov 2012... Related to our recent discussion of arrows of time, I thought the following non-physics-centric article might surprise some of you: in "Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?", The New York Times writes: "The scientists described how the species — at any stage of its development — could transform itself back to a polyp, the organism’s earliest stage of life, “thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality.” This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die."

Posted Lectures

Lecture 1, 11 Sep 2012
Lecture 2, 13 Sep 2012: Rutherford, Popper, Kuhn, Newton's Laws, Conservation of Energy, and so on
Lecture 3, 18 Sep 2012: Energy and fields - introduction to electricity and magnetism
Lecture 4, 20 Sep 2012: Waves and introduction to interference
Lecture 5, 25 Sep 2012: Dimensional analysis, scaling laws, characteristics of waves, light as an em wave
Lecture 6, 27 Sep 2012: More dimensional analysis -- from raindrops, aliens, and the definition of the metre to glowing coals and the origin of quantum physics.
Lecture 7, 2 Oct 2012: The photoelectric effect and light as particles and waves -- can one particle go through two slits?
Lecture 8, 4 Oct 2012: The mystery of single-particle interference; the Feynman rules; the measurement problem, and introduction to the Copenhagen Interpretation
Lecture 9, 9 Oct 2012: Nobel Prizes for the manipulation of quantum particles; more on (in)distinguishability and information; introduction to the Rutherford and Bohr models of the atom, and de Broglie waves
Lecture 10, 11 Oct 2012: Review (including a bunch of videos) of fields, action at a distance, Schr¨o;dinger's Cat, Haroche's share of the Nobel prize, and the "big picture" of quantum states; introductory glimpse towards special relativity.
Lecture 11, 16 Oct 2012: More serious introduction to relativity-- the relativity of simultaneity, time dilation, et cetera.
Lecture 12, 18 Oct 2012: Relativity continued -- the twin paradox, length contraction, and the barn paradox (exposition)...
Lecture 13, 25 Oct 2012: Relativity continued -- the barn paradox and the two-ship paradox. Causality and the cosmic speed limit.
Lecture 14, 30 Oct 2012:Bell's two-ship paradox. Invariants (proper time), mass = energy, and brief introduction to the equivalence principle.
Lecture 15, 1 Nov 2012:The equivalence principle -> gravity, acceleration and geometry -- general relativity.
Lecture 16, 6 Nov 2012: Gravity waves and LIGO; cosmology, Hubble and the cosmological constant; dark matter and "dark energy"
Lecture 17, 8 Nov 2012: The arrow of time, thermodynamics, and entropy.
Some applets on the 3-body problem and chaotic dynamics, from David Harrison's 15 Nov lecture(html).
Lecture 19, 20 Nov 2012: Violation of time reversal symmetry; Quantum uncertainty and some interpretations of quantum mechanics
Lecture 20, 22 Nov 2012: The many-worlds interpretation, collapse and consciousness, et cetera; polarized light and the effects of measurement - motivation of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen "paradox"
Lecture 21, 27 Nov 2012: The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen gedankenexperiment, and Bell's inequalities.
Lecture 22, 29 Nov 2012: the implications of Bell's inequalities, the ongoing impossibility of faster-than-light communications, and motivation for quantum cryptography
Lecture 23, 4 Dec 2012: (a) quantum cryptography and quantum computation; (b) particle physics, the standard model, and antimatter
Good luck on your exams, and happy holidays!


Required text: Hobson's PHYSICS: Concepts and Connections, Pearson Education (2003).

Some excellent popularisations of modern physics (You are advised to choose your favorite from this first list of four, and begin reading it immediately):

Schrödinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality: Solving the Quantum Mysteries  by John Gribbin
The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene
Quantum Reality Beyond the New Physics by Nick Herbert
How to Teach Physics to Your Dog by Chad Orzel

Some attempts to connect physics to culture more broadly, correctly or incorrectly (you will be the jury, though I will be the judge…):

The First Moderns, William R Everdell
The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra

Some other books by physicists:

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, by Richard P Feynman
Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman
Programming the Universe A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos by Seth Lloyd
A Different Universe Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down by Robert B. Laughlin
The Fabric of Reality, by David Deutsch
The Quantum World Quantum Physics for Everyone by Kenneth William Ford and Kenneth W. Ford

And here are a few other wonderful books about science, and/or scientists, and/or the sociology of science:

A World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics
edited by Timothy Ferris
Hardcover: 859 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 9.40 x 1.90 x 6.50
Publisher: Little Brown & Company; ASIN: 0316281298; (March 1991)
Other Editions: Paperback (Reprint)

(This is an incredible compilation of some fascinating essays by scientists, essays about science and scientists, and literature inspired by science.)

Ideas & Opinions
by Albert Einstein
Hardcover: ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.18 x 8.33 x 5.64
Publisher: Bonanza Books; ISBN: 0517003937; Reprint edition (March 1988)
In-Print Editions: Paperback (Reprint) | All Editions

Great Essays in Science
ed. by Martin Gardiner
Paperback: 427 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.38 x 8.93 x 6.02
Publisher: Prometheus Books; ISBN: 0879758538; Reprint edition (January 1994)

(This book for me has always been the ultimate example of how science can be properly communicated-- the writers are so talented that even the most apparently uninteresting topics are made gripping.)

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA
by James D. Watson
Paperback: 256 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.69 x 8.44 x 5.53
Publisher: Touchstone Books; ISBN: 074321630X; (June 2001)

This is a book which has inspired at least one generation of both scientists and of science writers, and is remarkable as an inside view of the realities and personalities involved in a race for scientific discovery.

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science
by Alan D. Sokal, Jean Bricmont
Paperback: 320 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.94 x 8.25 x 5.50
Publisher: Picador; ISBN: 0312204078; (October 1999)

Fermat's Enigma:
The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem
by Simon Singh, John Lynch
Paperback: 315 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.88 x 7.06 x 4.92
Publisher: Bantam Books; ISBN: 0385493622; (September 1998)

The Code Book:
The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography
by Simon Singh
Paperback: 410 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.90 x 8.01 x 5.19
Publisher: Anchor Books; ISBN: 0385495323; (August 29, 2000)

Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture
by Apostolos K. Doxiadis
Paperback: 224 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.59 x 8.28 x 5.49
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; ISBN: 1582341281; (February 2001)

A novel which does a great job of conveying the elegance of pure mathematics and how enticing it can be, along with some interesting insights about a career in research.

The Physicists
by Friedrich Durrenmatt, James Kirkup (Translator)
Paperback: 94 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.32 x 8.21 x 5.41
Publisher: Grove Press; ISBN: 0802150888; Reissue edition (January 1992)

by Michael Frayn
Paperback: 144 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.41 x 8.02 x 5.22
Publisher: Anchor Books; ISBN: 0385720793; (August 8, 2000)

Tom Stoppard Plays 5:
Arcadia, the Real Thing, Night and Day, Indian Ink, Hapgood
by Tom Stoppard
Paperback: 608 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.70 x 7.76 x 4.96
Publisher: Faber & Faber; ISBN: 0571197515; (December 2000)

Arcadia and Hapgood are two of the most scientifically difficult plays ever to be performed on the mainstream stage, yet at least the former achieved widespread success, and shows the penetration of some recent scientific ideas into the intellectual world. The latter is perhaps more than anything an interesting demonstration of the misappropriation of scientific jargon and ideas by the public, but still a great read (a cold war spy thriller about a quantum physicist double agent).

Beamtimes and Lifetimes
The World of High Energy Physicists
Sharon Traweek
ISBN 0-674-06347-3

A book by an anthropologist who went to live "among the natives" at two particle-accelerator laboratories, and paints an accurate if sometimes depressing picture of the lives of physicists.

Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist
by Russell McCormmach
Paperback: ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.56 x 9.20 x 6.08
Publisher: Harvard Univ Pr; ISBN: 0674624610; Reprint edition (March 1991)

The fictitious memoirs of a physicist reaching the end of his career at a time when he is being overtaken by the revolutions in his discipline.

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman
by James Gleick
Paperback: 531 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.13 x 7.98 x 5.19
Publisher: Vintage Books; ISBN: 0679747044; Reprint edition (November 1993)

Science and Society: The John C. Polanyi Nobel Laureates Lectures
edited by Martin Moscovits, John C. Polanyi, Martin Moskovits
Hardcover: 133 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.78 x 9.28 x 6.24
Publisher: House of Anansi Pr; ISBN: 0887841708; (October 1999)

The End of Science:
Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age
by John Horgan
Paperback: 320 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.95 x 8.24 x 5.55
Publisher: Broadway Books; ISBN: 0553061747; Reprint edition (June 1997)

Postmodernism and Big Science:
Einstein, Dawkins, Kuhn, Hawking, Darwin
edited by Richard Appignanesi
Paperback: 224 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.75 x 7.80 x 5.02
Publisher: Totem Books; ISBN: 1840463511; (June 2002)

Homework Assignments

Homework assignments will be posted here and announced in class.

The first homework assignment is available here, and will be due at the start of your tutorial the week of October 2nd.

The short essay assignment is available here, and will be due at the start of your tutorial the week of October 9th.

The second homework assignment is available here, and will be due at the start of your tutorial the week of October 14th.

Some additional practice problems for the midterm are available here.

The proposed title for your term paper should be emailed to your TA for approval by 3 November. Information on the parameters for the final paper is available here.

The third homework assignment is available here, and will be due to your TA on Thursday 15 November, at the start of tutorial. [Note that I made a mistake in the problem numbering -- there is no problem 4.]

The final homework assignment is available here, and will be due on Tuesday December 4th.

Some practice questions for you to think about while studying for the final appear at this link.

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